An Ash Wednesday sermon preached March 2, 2022 at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Twenty First Century America has an odd relationship with death. On the one hand, we sort of accept needless death as par for the course—look at our response to covid with almost one million deaths in this country alone.
Or our inability to address gun violence deaths. Around 50,000 people die in our country each year from gun violence. And we’re just sort of “meh”. Mass shooting events barely make the news anymore. One happened, in a church no less, just down the road from us this week in Sacramento.
At the same time, somehow, we actively deny that death exists. The amount of money Americans spend on cosmetic procedures and hair dye and all the other things we do to pretend we are not aging—it’s impressive. And I’m saying this with out judgment. There’s color in my hair that the good Lord didn’t give me. I saw a film star the other day on TV and part of me wanted to applaud how great she looked for a woman in her 80s. Part of me couldn’t compute that a woman in her 80s could look like she was 40.
All this is to say that we have a weird relationship with death, with the sense of our mortality, with the process of aging, and with the fragile nature of life.
Which is why I love Ash Wednesday.
Because on Ash Wednesday we are marked with dust and reminded that we are mortal beings, a part of the created world, with a finite time to enjoy this gift of life we’ve been given.
Nadia Bolz Weber, Lutheran pastor and author says this about Ash Wednesday:
“Here’s my image of Ash Wednesday: If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. The water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the past and future to meet us in the present. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God: That we are God’s, that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life.”
― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People
On Ash Wednesday, we re-orient ourselves, away from cultural denials of death, or the cultural numbness about death, and back to the existence and reality of death.
We think of the people we have loved and journeyed with through life who are no longer in this earthly realm. To dust they have been returned. And we give thanks for their lives and we mourn their absence from our lives. And their absence make us more tender and aware of the people still around us, still on this journey with us.
And, when we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, when we remember that life is short, we can live with good intention and with joy, making haste to be kind.
One of the privileges of a pastor is to hear people’s stories. It is a gift you give to us when you share with us the challenges and the triumphs and everything in between.
One of the things I’ve observed is that we aren’t always the best narrators of our own lives. One person can tell me their story and I’ll hear of their strength because of what they’ve overcome and survived. They see their own story as one of failure because things didn’t go smoothly and they’d had to overcome things.
It is the same story, but interpreted very differently.
What would happen if we could flip our narratives and change the story we tell about our lives? What if we could extend the same grace to our own lives that we extend to the people we love—where failure becomes a part of the journey and not a reason for judgment? Where triumph is seen when we pull ourselves out of the ashes and try again?
I invite you to notice, to observe, the story you tell yourself about your life.
This year, in Lent, we’ll be flipping the narrative too. As I mentioned at the start of worship, Lent is often viewed as the season in our faith when we give things up, we prepare for the worst. This year, let’s allow ourselves to imagine that God wants more for us than just six weeks of discipline or six weeks without chocolate.
Our Lenten theme this year is Full to the Brim. It is an invitation—into a radically different Lent, into a full life. It’s an invitation to be authentically who you are, to counter scarcity and injustice at every turn, to pour out even more grace wherever it is needed.
Are you ready to look at Lent from a different perspective?
The apostle Paul shows us how to turn the story around. Listen to these words from 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Paul is a little tricky for Presbyterians. He’s a lot. In these few verses, we get it all. Riots! sleepless nights! calamities! A lot of drama.
What he’s trying to do, though, is to remind the church in Corinth to not be fooled by slick talking preachers who show up and are better orators and smoother operators than Paul is. “Yeah, that guy has a private plane and nice teeth. And sure, I’m in jail because I angered the Romans, but that doesn’t mean you should listen to him instead of me!” That’s another translation of the Greek.
Paul flips the narrative. Yes, we’re treated as imposters, he writes, but we are true. They say we are unknown, but you know us. They say we’re dying, and sure, it has been rough, but we’re alive! They say we’re sorrowful, but here I am REJOICING all the way from jail.
You can tell a different story of your life, Paul reminds us. You can find gift if you’re looking for it, even in the midst of bad news and tragedy.
Paul is also writing to a church he started and a church he loves to remind them that salvation isn’t for some far off future day. Salvation is the way we live our lives right now. Paul quotes Isaiah 49, with God calling out:
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
Today, we’re told, is that day. Now is the time. Life is short. Now is the time to live it.
Isaiah also teaches us to change our stories. God, in the passage Joann read, is upset that people go through the motions of fasting, of appearing to be religious, but they don’t change their hearts, they don’t let their religious practice transform their lives. This is not the fast that I choose, says God. And then we have the beautiful poetry of Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
God wants the people of God to flip their understandings of religious practice, of who they are called to be and how they are called to live together.
So this year, during Lent and maybe even after Lent, I invite you to consider familiar rituals in new ways, to attend to the stories we tell about our lives, about our faith, about our religious practice.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
That seems like a story worth telling. Let’s live lives that make that true for all.
Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation. Amen.